Hype train check in: How five teams are living up to expectations

Todd McLellan talks about the Oilers struggles on offence and why the team will need to get faster if they want to start clicking this season.

With each new NHL season comes a fresh sheet of ice and wide-open expectations. It’s a time for optimism and belief, when everyone believes they can exceed expectations.

It doesn’t take long for those hopes to be supported with a good start, or turned into skepticism with an underwhelming first month. We’re nearly at the 10-game mark for most teams and already we’re getting some mixed reviews from the teams with the highest of expectations.

Welcome to the Hype Train Check In.

The following are eight teams who came in wholly optimistic that this was their year to make a dent — whether they had Stanley Cup aspirations, or just anticipated a big jump up the standings with a young roster, or one upgraded through the summer. We’ll give you a background on why each team had such high hopes, where those hopes landed, and how they’ve looked out of the gate.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

WINNIPEG JETS

Ticket To The Hype Train: The Jets were the first team out of the Western Conference playoffs last season, but missed by a healthy seven points even after winning their last seven games. But just look at this roster and all of its young players and the expectations were sky high. In fact, the Jets had similar hopes coming into 2016-17 for the very same reasons — but those were dashed by unreliable netminding from the young duo of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson and, eventually, from recycled starter Ondrej Pavelec.

The reason why they started with very similar hope in 2017-18 was because a) the defence was healthy again and added Dimitry Kulikov and b) Steve Mason was acquired as a veteran netminder to start more than half of the games.

Hype Train Status: Mason, who was supposed to solve all this, has been awful in allowing 16 goals in just three games with a lousy .846 save percentage, which has forced Paul Maurice to turn back to Hellebuyck, who has looked like a starter with his .928 save percentage in five games. The team has won four of its past five games to hold a 4-3-0 record, but there have been other concerns with the team beyond Mason.

As Jonathan Willis explored last week, the Jets’ problems stem from their defence, which has been extremely underwhelming. And beyond that, the special teams units haven’t been as good as they look like they should be, with the power play 17th in the league and penalty kill dead last.

Stat to be encouraged about: Hellebuyck has allowed more than two goals just once in his first four starts.

Stat to be discouraged about: The Jets allow 34.6 shots against per game, eighth most in the NHL.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

Ticket To The Hype Train: Similar to the Jets, Carolina was a hyped team heading into last season, too, but missed the playoffs by eight points. Most of the hope around this team had to do with its young and deep defence, which is populated by the likes of Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin. Scoring and goaltending were sore spots for them last season, two issues they addressed in the summer with Justin Williams and Markus Kruger added to the forward corps which now boasts a fair amount of depth, while former backup Scott Darling was given his first chance as a No. 1.

Hype Train Status: The Hurricanes have made way for the New Jersey Devils early on, as they have become the upstart team from the Metropolitan Division, but don’t sleep on the Canes because they may have more staying power over 82 games. Their goals for per game is up slightly over last season, despite the team shooting percentage being a bit lower overall and likely due for an uptick at some point. Jeff Skinner has five goals in six games and is working as the lifeblood of the offence.

Stat to be encouraged about: 98.2 PDO. Bring up the team shooting percentage and Darling’s save percentage after a few more games and Carolina will get better results. Sure, last year the Canes finished with a 98.8 PDO and some teams will finish with a lower mark than this because of weaknesses in the roster, but the Hurricanes’ talent still projects to be better than last year’s.

Stat to be discouraged about: 10 even-strength goals. This total, through six games, is on pace to be fewer than the 161 even-strength markers the team scored last season. If the offence is to get better, the 5-on-5 production needs to improve year over year.

DALLAS STARS

Ticket To The Hype Train: We knew this team had the capability to score, one year removed from being the best offence in the league at 3.23 goals per game. But when you take that potential and hire Ken Hitchcock as the conductor? You can bet your play on the other side of the puck would tighten up, too.

The Stars added Alexander Radulov to their lineup, making for one scary top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Defensive defenceman Marc Methot was brought in to fit nicely with Hitchcock’s way of doing things, and Ben Bishop was tasked with stabilizing a goaltending situation that was essentially two backups playing over their heads. The Stars were Central Division regular-season champs in 2015-16, so it was easy to buy into this bounce-back situation.

Hype Train Status: So far, this hype train is staying on track. The Stars’ offence is up over last season at 2.88 goals per game, but because the whole league is scoring more, overall they’ve fallen a few spots to the 20th-best offence currently. The first line may pack a punch, but after that there are question marks. The good news is Hitchcock’s system is firmly in place and that better defensive structure translates to more sustainable success over 82 games.

Stat to be encouraged about: Plus-64 Corsi. Tightening up the defence behind a top-heavy offence that’s generating more shots than it did a year ago means Dallas is an analytics-friendly team to this point. Hold this much of an advantage in opportunities over your opponents and you’re more likely to win than not, #math. Four of the top five teams in Corsi differential made the playoffs last season, and the only one who didn’t was a Los Angeles Kings team that had a league-worst 6.21 shooting percentage.

Stat to be discouraged about: 0-2-0, .851, 3.98: Kari Lehtonen’s stat line. Before Antti Niemi was waived by Pittsburgh, he was getting blown up and earning all kinds of negative press as people wondered why the Penguins ever thought it wise to bet on a Dallas cast-off as their backup. But in Dallas currently, Lehtonen was left behind with one, $5.9 million season on his contract as the better of the two options.

Problem is, he’s only a hair better than Niemi. Bishop is 30 and coming off a season in which he was slowed by injury — how will the Stars ever be able to hope for a win with Lehtonen, and how can they feel good about planning off days for Bishop to make sure he’s in good shape later in the season?

EDMONTON OILERS

Ticket To The Hype Train: It’s always a golden ticket with Connor McDavid. After reaching the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season it was anticipated to be a natural progression upwards with a young roster led by a generational talent. Last season was the first taste, and this season was to be the next step, which many even expected to be the Stanley Cup itself. They were the second to only Pittsburgh in the pre-season odds.

Hype Train Status: It’s definitely a little rocky at the moment, but we’re not at a derailment yet. What we have learned, though, are some weaknesses of the team that were glossed over because of how smooth last season went and how much McDavid himself can act as a band-aid.

The loss of Jordan Eberle is being felt, as Edmonton is currently having to put Kailer Yamamoto in the top line right wing spot for his speed, even if he’s not really NHL-ready yet. And this is trickling down a lineup that is reminding us about its lack of speed and, really, scoring depth. Since Leon Draisaitl went down with a concussion, Edmonton has eight goals in five games, which is worse than how it started the season. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is best fit as a third-line centre, but doesn’t appear he’ll make it as a significant producer in Edmonton, and Ryan Strome is showing he’s a reclamation project who probably won’t reclaim his career as a top-six forward.

Basically, it’s so bad in Edmonton right out of the gate that it has to get better from here, right?

Stat to be encouraged about: 5.0 shooting percentage. The worst shooting team last season converted 7.2 per cent of the time, and Edmonton won’t be as bad as the historically awful Colorado Avalanche. If you adjust Edmonton’s stats from this year to an 8.8 shooting percentage (league average was approximately nine per cent last season), Edmonton would have 26 goals instead of 15 and be a plus differential team. In that scenario the situation would certainly be rosier and we’re probably talking about the Oilers in a much different light.

Stat to be discouraged about: 1-3-0 at home. Look, it’s early and this certainly could turn around quickly, but it’s worth pointing out that Edmonton is already a quarter of the way to its total number of regulation home losses from last season.

Edmonton held the third-best road record in the West last season at 22-14-5, which will be tough to duplicate as the league figures them out. They’ve lost their past three at home, each of which were games that should have been easy to get up for coming off a bad loss. After Tuesday’s 2-1 loss in Pittsburgh, the Oilers return home for a big five-game stretch.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Ticket To The Hype Train: Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner headed one of the best rookie groups in Leafs history, if not the outright best. Frederik Andersen, after a rocky start, emerged as a capable No. 1. The addition of Patrick Marleau further filled out a forward corps with a rich collection of depth and the defence behind it, without a true No. 1 of its own, was good enough to get in the playoffs and push the Presidents’ Trophy Capitals to six games. Like Edmonton, the natural progression for this young team rushed them to the front of the hype train.

Hype Train Status: The days of the 18-wheeler are gone and the current Maple Leafs are chugging along comfortably after nine games at 7-2-0. Four players are posting at a point-per-game pace or better, and it’s no big deal that Marner has been demoted to the third or fourth line. The Leafs are one of the league’s most exciting teams to watch and have blown away their opponents so far with an unrelenting offence.

Stat to be encouraged about: .857 — Frederik Andersen’s 5-on-5 high danger save percentage. His stat line looks ugly so far and in the eight games he’s played, Andersen has allowed fewer than three goals in just three of them. It’s reminiscent of his brutal start to last season, when he was coming off injury.

The good news is he’s destined to improve. Andersen is really being dragged down by a league-worst save percentage from low-danger areas, which strikes as a small sample size blip. The high danger chances are the ones that are most repeatable and the best indication of a goalie’s play — and Andersen to date has the ninth-best mark according to Corsica after finishing fifth among those with at least 40 games last season.

Stat to be discouraged about: 13.0 shooting percentage. The previous stat better be a sign that the goaltending and goals-against will improve because it’s a certainty the Maple Leafs won’t keep scoring at their current pace. The team is averaging more than four goals per game and a shooting percentage not seen since the early-1990s.

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